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Tribulation - Carnivale (part 2) - Braille Radio

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March 2nd, 2012

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08:26 pm - Tribulation - Carnivale (part 2)
And we finish the February Month of Gaming (slightly late, as I've been at a conference in Geelong) by talking about our Weird West game Tribulation, which we actually played about two weeks ago. One of the good things about this game is that barrington and fengshuiguytake notes so that I don't have to, but then I need to edit them down to a more compact size - and to tell you the truth, editing just isn't that much fun when you've been doing it all week at your day job.

But enough complaints! Let us quickly flash back to the last session, which was a fuck of a long time ago, and then dive straight into the crazy goings-on!

Something within the ornate cabinet (‘The Box’) calls to Emmett as Delian brags about acquiring it from its former owner – Samuel Colt. Delian opens it to reveal that the Box is half filled by a jagged mass of crystals that pulse with a sickly green light; Emmett senses that something is wrong and that something is missing.

Delian tells Glend to come forward and show his crystal-powered pistol to Emmett, who tinkers with it and is able to quickly boost its power and effectiveness. He demands Delian give him access to the Box and a full laboratory, but Delian wants Emmett to prove himself by tracking down the motherlode of crystals. Emmett is intractable until Glend offers his help and use of the bank's resources. Emmett leaves to gather his equipment, and Delian orders Glend to learn Emmett’s secrets.

Cruz is visited in his cell by Sarah (and Emmett's dog Ares). Sarah believes he is innocent of murdering the prostitute, and offers to help him escape if he will help bring Emmett to his senses. Cruz tries to bully her into just letting him go, but she is adamant, and he comes with her to the newspaper offices, unaware that passersby have heard their argument and gone to find the Sheriff.

At the murder scene, Elijah attempts to flush out whatever has taken Fancy, but to no avail. He uses Templar magic to make a bullet float above his palm and point to the culprit, and it settles pointing southwest – and is visible to Glend as he comes to ask the Sheriff about Emmett. When word comes that Cruz has escaped, Elijah heads back to the jail, and Glend attempts to come with him; the two argue in front of the bar's patrons until Glend is finally cowed and leaves.

Emmett is sorting through his workshop as Cruz and Sarah arrive. Cruz asks what has gotten into him, and Emmett explains that Delian and Glend are part of a sinister organisation – and that he has to work with them so that he can find out what they're up to. Suddenly Emmett and Cruz smell burned beaver pelts and realise that Sarah has vanished! Emmett uses a contraption to find that she has been taken to the southwest and says they must find her. Cruz, demoralised and convinced of his own worthlessness, wants to leave Tribulation forever, but Emmett talks him around and they set off.

At the jail, Elijah uses his tracking magic to locate Cruz's trail, but as he's about to mount up he hears the ghost of Samuel Colt call his name. Colt reveals that Fancy poisoned and killed him in order to take that which he held secret. Conflicted by his loyalties to the Temple and to Colt, Elijah Elijah rides out, coldly focused on justice.

Cruz, Emmett and Ares arrive at the abandoned orphanage southwest of town. Ares seems to know the area, and something about it strikes Cruz as familiar. Emmett lights a lamp as Cruz kicks open the door and yells to Grundy to come out. As they enter, Cruz explains to Emmett that Grundy is a monster of a man from the Carnivale, big and strong but twisted inside. This prompts a shout of "I thought you were my friend!" as an invisible force hurls a bookcase at Cruz and traps him in wreckage, then tosses Emmett him across the room into a set of filing cabinets.

Glend has followed the others and witnesses the massive Grundy blink in and out of sight as he rages as Cruz, screaming that a drumming in his head has made him do terrible things. Elijah bursts in, but is also unable to see Grundy (or Glend) and attempts to talk him out of hiding, while Emmett discovers Sarah and Fancy tied up in a cabinet. Grundy battles with the heroes, screaming that the black smoke has poisoned his soul and that the Super Chief will have his revenge. Eventually they lure the invisible monster out and Elijah guns him down before he can stab Cruz.

In the aftermath of the battle, Elijah drags Fancy back to his office to demand answers; Glend takes a sample of blood from Grundy's body; a reenergised Emmett sets out to uncover the secrets of the Agency, and Ares sniffs out a faded photo of a boy and a man in the orphanage rubble...

A scene may be a spontaneous reaction to game events, or it can be well-designed to maximise drama and flow; it’s rarely both. Tribulation has primarily been an improvised game for me, and while that has many benefits, it does mean that some scenes don’t come together as well as they could. Like the climax of this session, which was kind of a hot mess.

One of the weaknesses of Smallville is that it gets tricky and messy when multiple characters fight one enemy. If each player acts on their own, it gets slow and cumbersome; if they gang up, they can overpower a solo enemy too quickly for drama. (Something that the new Marvel RPG seems to have fixed with its version of the system.) So my aim for this fight was to break it up into one-on-one moments and let players buddy up rather than gang up so that the fight felt interesting but not impossible. Well, ‘aim’ is probably too strong a word. I mostly just improvised the whole thing and tried to make it come together.

What happened instead is that the players didn’t really have a chance to connect their decisions to the mechanics effectively, and as a result things felt contrived and handwavey. The guys enjoyed themselves, but I felt like things were lopsided and draggy and that I had to skew things for a dramatic finish rather than a slog. So I need to watch out for that in the next episode, and maybe do more thinking (if not planning) for the finale.

Climax aside, though, it was a great session for shaping and pushing character conflicts. More of Emmett’s character has emerged and he’s deliberately setting himself against Delian Sisoula and Glend, while Cruz and Elijah are ready to clash over Fancy. This means that next session should see those conflicts naturally come together, while at the same time I look for ways to start developing other conflict pairings for later.

As for next session – mesmerism! Wolves! The power of the Apache Super Chief! And probably a bunch of other stuff.

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